Pakistan haven’t won a Test against South Africa since 2007 when Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Asif, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Danish Kaneria helped them stay alive in the series.
Almost seven years, three series and eight Tests later, a follow-up win is still awaited. Pakistan lost that 2007 series-decider in Cape Town as well as the series-opener in Karachi later that year. Lahore (2007) was a draw courtesy resolute and gritty batting by the hosts and much of the same was in display in the UAE three years later. But Pakistan batsmen failed to find their feet in South Africa earlier this year as the hosts romped to a 3-0 whitewash with utmost ease.
So, given the lack of star-power, a pair of recognised openers and a right-arm fast-bowler, how can Pakistan shock the top-ranked Test side in the world?
Because they have to...
Pakistan’s Test record since Dav Whatmore took over has been nothing short of abysmal—a loss in Sri Lanka, that South Africa whitewash and then losing a Test to Zimbabwe to send the followers into a spin. Pakistan’s opening-Test win in Zimbabwe was their only in the last eight and also has been their sole victory since the humiliation of England in the UAE last year.
The joy from the England whitewash cannot be held on forever and the poor show has already forced the exit of one man (Mohammad Hafeez). So, with jobs on the line, Pakistan need to improve and win. They simply have no other choice. Whatmore needs it, Misbah needs it and even Asad Shafiq needs it.
"For me, the story of Pakistan cricket and the story of Pakistan today are one and the same – a story of unfulfilled promise." - Imran Khan— Alternative Cricket (@AltCricket) October 9, 2013
Conditions their batsmen prefer
The timing of the series could not have been better.
Pakistan’s batsmen have been under fire for a poor show since the start of the year—thrashing in South Africa, lucky escapes in Scotland and Ireland before humiliation in the Champions Trophy. Slight respite in the West Indies was followed by further shame in Zimbabwe. Now, the sun, the sweat and the empty seats will give Pakistan batsmen a more homely feeling, one that they thrive in and have been playing all their lives.
Dale Steyn will be a threat big enough to thrash all those feelings but this is Pakistan’s best chance of getting among the runs once again. Given the hype about turning tracks, South Africa will be playing spinners in the playing-XI and with one fast-bowler short, it will be music to Pakistan’s ears.
Pakistan batsmen scored nine half-centuries when these two sides met in the Test series three years ago. Only Younus Khan managed to reach the three-figure mark. Those fifties were enough to salvage the series but uncertainty at the top this time round, and the unstable minds, means that more will be needed at regular junctures.
Spin will be their forte
Pakistan’s grave mistake in South Africa earlier this year was to adapt the opposition’s strongest point as their own and drop theirs in the pecking order.
With an unproven and inexperienced fast-bowling attack, Pakista opted to rattle South Africa with pace, playing Saeed Ajmal as the only frontline spinner. More shocking was the fact that this trend continued throughout the series and Abdul Rehman, who tormented England barely 112 months ago, carried drinks.
Now, the lessons seemed to have been learnt. UAE will also stand to favour the spinners—and the heat will not allow fat-bowlers to operate at will. The ‘hosts’ have gone in with three spinners this time round—Ajmal, Rehman and Zulfiqar Babar. With Umar Gul still undergoing rehabilitation and Hafeez omitted, Pakistan might well play all three spinners. However, with a frail batting lineup, that composition will stand to weaken that more.
Will Pakistan be able to win the Test series?
Pakistan coach Dav Whatmore (via AFP):
I have confidence in the Pakistan team. You can't just say (that we don't have a chance). The conditions will be entirely different. I feel we are in a better position than before. Our players want to avenge the 3-0 defeat. We lost in South Africa because our players were not prepared for the pitches there and the pace and movement they offered.
Former South Africa captain Ashwell Prince (via Pakpassion.net):
"When South Africa play any Test series, they expect to win. I see this series being no different and I think it will be 1-0l to South Africa or at worst a draw. This is not taking anything away from Pakistan or disrespecting them at all, but I expect South Africa to win."
South Africa coach Russell Domingo (via ESPNCricinfo):
"Our pace attack against their opening batters will be important to set up the series for us. We had a good chat and emphasised the important elements that made this Test side so successful and how we want to try and continue to do well."
Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq (via AFP):
"Our preparations and moral are good. We have to forget the past and play competitive cricket in this tough series. No doubt Hafeez is a senior player but because he is out of form it was difficult for him (to get into the team) but I am sure others are also capable to do well."